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Books: The Bible as Artifact Volume 55 Number 1, January/February 2002
by Mark Rose

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From left: a 7th-8th-century Coptic gospel book cover (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M 569); apocalyptic scene in the mid-13th-century Bible of Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III (Cambridge, Trinity College, M.S.R. 16.2); 1663 Indian missionary Bible (Courtesy Phaidon Press, Ltd.). [LARGER IMAGE1] [LARGER IMAGE2] [LARGER IMAGE3]

Think of the Bible not as a holy book, but as an artifact. That is the approach taken by Christopher de Hamel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in The Book. A History of the Bible (New York: Phaidon, 2001; $39.95). More copies of the Bible have been sold than any other book; it has been translated into more languages than any other book; and it is a perennial bestseller, century after century. As such, the Bible reflects different times and different places, certainly no less than any other artifact and more so than most.

De Hamel begins with the translation of the Bible from its Hebrew and Greek texts into Latin by St. Jerome in the late fourth century. The translation was not widely accepted at first--the language was too modern--and only after a few centuries passed did it become the standard version for a millennium. This desire among readers for texts that are archaic is another peculiarity of the Bible, according to de Hamel, and the continuing popularity of the seventeenth-century King James version bears him out.

Tracing the history of the Bible is also tracing the history of bookmaking, and Johannes Gutenberg's mid-fifteenth-century Bible is a case in point. The idea for mechanically producing books using movable type may have come to Gutenberg during a failed business venture involving stamping out metal souvenirs for religious pilgrims. Even with the invention of movable type, however, Gutenberg's success may have been limited--his Bibles were not intended for the mass market and he printed only 110 at first. His limited run would have yielded limited profits, but, fortunately for him, Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. Christian fervor, stimulated by fears that the Turks might advance into central Europe, created an unprecedented demand for Bibles. The Gutenberg Bible is thus an artifact of a business failure, an invention, and a conquest.

One of the oddest and most poignant examples of the Bible as artifact that de Hamel cites is a 1663 edition printed at Cambridge, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is the first complete Bible printed in the Western Hemisphere, he says, and the first translation of the Bible into any new language for use by missionaries. But the speakers of the Native American Natick dialect in which it was printed are no longer extant, making this Bible, as de Hamel observes, "the most important unreadable book in the world."

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America